Last weekend the dogs, Betty and Nell, and I, took part in a sheepdog competition. Though the kind of sheepdog trial that we partake in does indeed test almost all of the skills of dogs and handlers that are called upon in practical flock work, I find myself almost always having to check myself when my dogs come away with low scores, or even no scores at all because of disqualification.
There are very many ways to lose points and to be disqualified in a sheepdog trial. It is, almost by definition, a cruel sport. There are many ways to find yourself and your dog out of the prize list. In real farm work you simply shrug these things off, and perhaps quietly stop your dog, regroup, and start over with the right moves rather than the wrong ones.
But in sheepdog trials you get tunnel vision. You sometimes get fooled into thinking you or your dog are no good because of one or two slipups. In fact, odds are, every dog who dares to go out on such a field, with top competition, is still a miracle in motion for their instinct and their skill at moving sheep. And most of the handlers do quite well moving sheep about on their farms or home flocks.
Come to think about it, just about every sport humans have invented–every test of skill there is, is a great and almost silly abstraction. Life takes hard work, strength, stamina, speed and precision. But, in our sports or games we always verge on the ridiculous. We put goal keepers in front of nets. We make the target as small as we can. We stretch ourselves.
Take the spelling bee as an example. Every year there is a ritual we go through where we put a story or two or three on the front page of the papers about the kid who wins the spelling bee. These days it is usually an Asian-American who wins. And always–always that child has had to endure round after round of spelling some ridiculously obscure words. Today we have spell checking software, but some of the words used in the spelling bee can’t even be found in those applications.
This is sport. This is the nature of competition. And we love it when the task is next to impossible, and someone has dedicated their life to being the very best at it.
And the rest are losers. In fact, almost everyone is a loser for the sake of the one who is very best. And those losers feel terrible about it. They came so tantalizingly close, but they just missed.
It is a comedy, isn’t it? Grown men hitting little balls around the hills and into tiny holes–and spending a fortune on expensive clubs and lessons–and getting drunk and cussing, and smashing their expensive club against a tree if they flub a shot. A child breaking down and crying because they left out that all important second “t” in scherenschnitte. What in the world is scherenschnitte? Or being embarrassed about that wonderful dog of yours just because on this day it couldn’t read your mind better when you tooted out all those commands on your whistle.
All the sports and games in the world amount to a great way to kill time and even get your blood pumping faster. You might, once in a while, proclaim to the world that you are number one, and a winner. But never forget, it is all a big joke.
But if it’s beauty you are after, try cooperation. My good mentor, Gordon Watt, was working with my dog, Betty, and me, on blind outrunning–that is, sending the dog to gather sheep over or around hills or woods and out of sight. Betty is quite used to moving gracefully around sheep and bringing them to me. But now I am asking her to bend out the right way when she hasn’t a clue where the sheep are and so doesn’t have anything to bend away from. And at one point, when I am whistling and speaking commands calmly and clearly, and Betty is bending out just right, and heading the right way over the hill, Gordon says, “Now you’re helping your dog!”
Of course that’s what I was always trying to do. That’s what Better was trying to do for me–helping me get the sheep. But now we are making contact. Now we are a team.
And that’s beautiful. That is the most beautiful thing in life, I think. That’s what makes flock work with the dogs so beautiful at home–so beautiful that we can see our dogs relax and enjoying life so much that they seem to smile about it.
Once in a great while sport can get at this, as when the Soviet hockey team skated and passed the puck in magnificent circles around their opponents. But it amazed and frustrated the fans of the teams they beat–the masses of people who think hockey consists of simply knocking people’s teeth out–the people who are stuck in the hilarious comedy of pure, brute competition that produces one winner and a pile of big, fat losers.